Intellectual history Think Piece

The monster of the Lagoon: On the Circulation of Images and Ideas in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World

By Morgana Lisi

By Morgana Lisi

“The tail was three varas and three-fourths longer than the body. The horns were a vara [(0.835 meters)] and a half long, and very modelled. The ears were three-fourths long, the neck of the head got caught on the foot when walking, the teeth as gems. The legs were no longer than a quarta, the nails longer than the whole head. The wings were proportioned to the body, the mouth as wide as the face, and the shell was green. The lower tail, although of a larger size than the one above, was entangled and used to get a grip.”

José Celestino Mutis, Spanish botanist, was among the first to describe the so-called “Tagua Tagua monster”, or “monster of Lake Fagua”. According to his sources, the creature was found in the Tagua Tagua Lake, in today’s Los Lagos region in southern Chile, in the estancia of Don Próspero Elso whose cattle was devoured by the monster. Fortunately, the monster no longer posed a threat to the local inhabitants and their livestock because it was flushed out and “burnt alive”. The handwritten description in Mutis’s notes, preserved at the Archive of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid, is undated. However, we do know that the Spanish botanist explored the nature of the New Kingdom of Granada, in today’s South America, leading the Royal Botanical Expedition between 1783 and 1808.

Curiously, nowadays, in San Vicente de Tagua Tagua there is a statue depicting some sort of horned dragon with its jaws wide open. The tale about the monster of the lagoon probably arose as a mixture of elements from Mapuche mythology and rural legends, which was amplified by Creoles. Beyond the debates on the nature of the creature, or its dubious existence as it was described, this case suggests interesting insights into the production and circulation of knowledge, ideas, and images, in the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world. As this piece wishes to show, collecting information about a monster in the southern regions of the American continent has significant implications for the more general dynamics of circulation of knowledge during the Enlightenment, both for the Americas as much as for Europe.

Indeed, Mutis’s description of the Tagua Tagua monster is not an isolated case. Similar representations of the beast circulated between America and Europe from 1784, along with a fascinating iconography that appeared in Chile, New Granada, Spain, and France. On 16th October 1784, in the Journal de Paris, an announcement sponsored the sale of an engraving by Madame Boutelou portraying a monster found in Chile. The beast, whose behaviour was predominantly nocturnal, devoured pigs, cows, and bulls in the area. It had bat-like wings, and two tails (one of which was arrow-shaped, to kill its prey). The engravings and the attached descriptions are very similar between them, differing only in some minor details. Interestingly, in the Paris newspaper, it is reported how the monster was captured and nourished by the order of the Viceroy of Peru. In Lima, it was fed properly (with an ox, a cow, and a bull a day, along with three or four pigs – “of which they said it is very fond of”). Finally, it would have been carried to Spain via Cadiz where, in three weeks, it would have been shown to the Spanish monarch Charles III. Remarkably, the announcement states that the beast, probably a harpy “heretofore considered a legendary animal”, would be given the chance to spawn in Europe.

“Monster that appeared in the Tagua Lagoon.” 1784. Archivo General de la Nación, Bogotá.

Descriptions convey different details about the existence of the monster, especially regarding its sighting place. In the same year, a pamphlet Description historique d’un monster symbolique… authored by Louis Stanislas Xavier of Bourbon – the future Louis XVIII during the Bourbon Restoration – appeared in Paris. In it, he attests to the existence of a Mexican amphibian monster, called “the harpy”. But his source of information raises a critical issue: the naturalist George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, in his ambitious Histoire naturelle… (1749-1789), had not referred to the existence of the beast in his description of monsters. Therefore, the Tagua Tagua creature may have been a different type of beast.

Late eighteenth-century explorations consisted of a vast effort to portray and describe distant territories for useful purposes. The Spanish monarchy’s scientific expeditions, for instance, were aimed at defining an avant-garde mapping of the domains and profitable resources (e.g., cochineal, cinchona bark, tea, cinnamon, etc.). From 1759 to 1808 almost sixty scientific expeditions explored the Spanish domains, many financed by the crown. These endeavours were helped by the support of two key peninsular institutions, namely the Royal Botanical Garden (1755) and the Royal Cabinet of Natural History (1776) in Madrid.

Such institutions intertwined their efforts to sustain the crown’s endeavours in the Americas. Pedro Franco Dávila, the founder of the Royal Cabinet, drafted and sent instructions to be delivered to the Viceroys, Governors, and Corregidores (a town’s chief magistrate) of the American Provinces, in which he requested to send “all the most curious productions of nature” to Spain so as to increase the brand-new cabinet’s collection. He also sent particular instructions to Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón who were the heads of the Royal Botanical Expedition to Peru and Chile. The assignment not only reiterated the guidelines for the collection of potentially useful plants for trade or medicine, but also emphasised the importance of collecting “natural curiosities”. Indeed, although the study of nature by the Spanish expeditions was mainly driven by economic interests, “curiosity” was also a powerful incentive. “Nature’s productions” were fascinating in all forms, from bizarre artefacts to endemic flora, unique minerals, and odd fauna – including our “monster”.

The word “monster” comes from the Latin monstrare (to demonstrate) or monere (to warn). From the bestiaries of the Middle Ages to Ambroise Paré’s Des monstres et des prodigies (1573), or Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia… (1642), monsters and curiosity had been part of European imagery and continued to be so into the eighteenth century. Distant geographies, “the edges of maps” that remained predominantly unknown, were the typical scenarios where such creatures were situated. Yet, the Americas suited well for such imagery, as proven also by the case of the so-called “monster of Buenos Aires” described by Louis Feuillée in 1714.  

This tends to discuss the traditional idea that the “disappearance of monsters” from the European cultural horizons was due to the process of affirmation of the discourse on “truth” in scientific thinking, along with a rejection of what was not observable and measurable at first-hand; namely, the prevailing of empiricism over erudition. As Georges Canghuilhem noted, the “eighteenth century made the monster not only an object but also an instrument of science”. Monsters did not disappear in the Age of Enlightenment but were rather translated into a new system of knowledge based on analytic and rational scientific discourse. Indeed, the idea that the Enlightenment was an “age of disenchantment”, driven by Reason only, was an ex-post facto fabrication.

In the eighteenth century, cultural practices such as occultism, mesmerism, and magic were popular and were incorporated into scientific thinking. Not only did these traditions survive, but they were also “enmeshed with elite culture, empirical science, and the celebration of reason”. For instance, in the early editions of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1735), the botanist also considers Animalia paradoxa (contradictory animals) found in medieval bestiaries in his system of classification. The hydra, the satyr, the phoenix, and the dragon appear in the taxonomic system.  

In a world that was becoming increasingly rationalised, strange animals and beasts raised the scepticism of well-read people, but their existence was often ascribed to a plausible explanation. Folklore permeated eighteenth-century scientific thinking, generating an original mixture in which fabulous elements were blended with rational thought. This conjuncture did not quite fade away but continued to dominate “science” until the late eighteenth century. As Robert Darnton points out, “so strong was the popular enthusiasm for science in the 1780s that it almost erased the line (never very clear until the nineteenth century) dividing science from pseudoscience”.

“Monster found in Lake Fagua, in the province of Chile, subject to Peru, in the Kingdom of Santa Fé.” 1784. Campion frères, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, coll. De Vinck, inv. 1155.

Although interest in natural curiosities was a centuries-old inheritance, new interpretative paradigms, linked to the direct observation of nature and its study (by classifying and naming), did arise in Enlightenment natural history. Michel Foucault drew attention to the experience of Buffon to explain the essence of the definition of Enlightnment “natural history”. Buffon expressed his astonishment when he was called to study Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et draconum historiae (1640), due to its singular content and structure. In Aldrovandi’s work, existing animals and monstrous or mythological figures such as the dragon or the basilisk are alternately depicted, along with their sighting locations. Yet, Buffon questioned what proportion of natural history was contained in such hotchpotch of writings, which were not descriptions but “legends” – stricto sensu as legenda, namely,“things to be read”, as Foucault underlined.

Indeed, Aldrovandi and Buffon mirror different ways of making natural history, but this should not imply the lack of rationality by the former, nor the latter’s propensity for such studies. What this argument underscores is how such intellectuals culturally were part of different epistemic systems of observation. Early modern natural history does not represent a defined discipline, but a blurry field of study in which information collected on a specific subject were assembled into a comprehensive and descriptive work. Most significantly, such an analysis also gives us some insight into the transformations that natural history underwent between the mid-seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, reaching its zenith through the gradual systematisation of its methods and practices.

“Departure of the Harpy or amphibious monster from Cadiz to be taken to the king and royal family of Spain.” 1784. Esnauts et Rapilly, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, coll. de Vinck, inv. 1157.

During this period, the study of nature brought order to a heterogenous system of dispersed knowledge, by applying empiricism to describe and arrange it. If we may consider natural history as the “nomination of the visible”, I argue that the “invisible” should also be included in such a framework. Order, although perhaps apparent, permeated the scientific thinking about nature. The passion for classification and rationalisation dominated the intellectual discourses to the extent that unreal animals were included. Their essence or existence did not matter, as long as they could fit into some class and an ostensible order was maintained. In this context, the intellectual debates about nature and “its productions” were widespread, despite the coexistent ontological contradictions.

In conclusion, some of the interpretative paradigms that form the idea of Enlightenment based on fixed and standardised stereotypes should be revised to include the dialogue and exchanges of knowledge from different and distant places. The information about our “monster” reflects the buzzy intellectual milieu of the period, in which the legacy of Medieval and Renaissance knowledge on beasts and monsters was conveyed into the Enlightenment’s scientific discourses. If natural history was the conjuncture of social, cultural, and economic processes laying at the foundations of its studies, “science” may be conceived as a set of practices and debates produced by a complex cultural environment.

In this context, Mutis’s and the French descriptions of our monster exemplify the dynamics of the circulation of knowledge between distant centres in the late eighteenth century. Although the legend probably originated in a rural context, it reached the salons of the French enlightened elite, sparking the curiosity of nobles and upper-class men – except for the interesting mention of the painter and art dealer Madame Boutelou who, in any case, as a woman in a predominantly white male context, remained a marginal actor in these scientific vicissitudes. The curious Tagua Tagua monster never reached Europe, contrary to what is reported in the sources. However, the information about it migrated through today’s Chile, Colombia, Spain, and France with minor alterations. An idea and image were crafted in Chile but spread throughout the region and, finally, reached Europe. Still, this is not a story about a monster. This interesting event points our attention to the artificiality of a Eurocentric “scientific” discourse and rather highlights the existent processes of recollection, filtering and, sometimes, crafting of information which commonly flowed from the Americas towards Europe, and not the other way around.

Morgana Lisi is a PhD Candidate in Global History of Empires at the University of Turin, Italy. Her research interests include the history of science, the history of knowledge, and the history of ideas in the early modern Iberian world. Currently, she is exploring the process of epistemological transformation of Natural History in the eighteenth-century Spanish monarchy, focusing on the studies by Creole naturalists in the province of Chile.

Edited by Matias X. Gonzalez

Featured Image: “Harpy, living amphibious monster.” 1784. Marquart Wocher, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, coll. De Vinck, inv. 1151.

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